What Does Marketing Have to Do with Health?

By Tom Farley

Plenty. Especially when our health depends so much on products that we consume – like cigarettes, alcohol, and food.

Marketing is much more than advertising. The classic “four Ps” of marketing are the product itself (and how it’s packaged, if you like five Ps), placement, pricing, and promotion.

Placement may be the most powerful P. Obviously, if no one can find a product, no one can buy it. But even small changes in how conveniently or prominently a product is placed have surprising effects on how many people buy and consume it. Products in grocery stores that are at eye level sell better than those placed higher or lower. Products displayed in four feet of shelf space sell about 20% better than those displayed in two feet. Special displays like those on the ends of aisles cause roughly a doubling of sales (which is why soda companies negotiate for end aisles). The more liquor stores there are in a neighborhood, the more people drink and the more alcohol-related health problems.

soda display

Pricing matters, too. All else being equal, lower prices mean more sales and more consumption. That’s why taxes are such effective tools to reduce consumption (and subsidies should increase consumption).

And then there is promotion – advertising. It’s hard to find anyone who will admit that he is influenced by ads, but they must work or businesses would stop paying for them.

Over the decades, techniques of marketing have been honed to a high art and science, with creative minds thinking about how to sell more and increasingly sophisticated data geeks measuring the results. It’s not a coincidence, then, that the products hurting us the most are among those most heavily marketed. Chain restaurants spend over $6 billion a year on advertising, and packaged food companies another $6 billion. Coca-cola, PepsiCo, and Dr. Pepper/Snapple together spend over $2 billion. The top five alcohol companies spend nearly $4 billion. The tobacco companies, barred from advertising in many traditional ways, spend $9 billion on marketing, mostly in the form of price incentives and promotions in retail stores.

tobacco ads

If marketing of unhealthy products is such a health risk, what can we do about it? 

First, we can limit the most egregious marketing. Why should we accept advertising of alcohol and junk food to kids? Or selling cigarettes in pharmacies that are supposed to help us get healthy? Why not require warning labels on sugary drinks, just as we have with cigarettes?

Second, we can borrow the techniques to market healthy alternatives. To balance marketing of cigarettes, booze, and sugary drinks we can market water, fruit, and vegetables. That means advertising, but not just advertising. It also means creative use of placement, packaging, and pricing.

Third, we can counter-advertise. Over the years we’ve learned how to un-sell cigarettes with tough antismoking ads. There’s no reason we can’t do the same for alcohol and junk food. One lesson from the tobacco wars is that counter-ads can win against cigarette ads even when we have less money to spend than the tobacco companies. It’s easier to unsell something than to sell it.

Look around at all of the marketing that you see. If the companies behind those campaigns can make marketing work, why can’t we?